Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Llittle Willie John Subject of New Biography by Detroit Journalist

June 22, 2011

Little Willie John lit up the stage

The Detroit News

Years before Motown broke through music industry racial barriers in the 1960s, Little Willie John was Detroit's first solo rhythm and blues star. He hit in 1955 with "All Around the World," following it up in 1956 with the classic "Fever." But despite influencing music greats like Marvin Gaye, B.B. King and Stevie Wonder, his name slipped into obscurity after he died in a Washington state prison, serving a sentence for manslaughter.

Detroit News reporter Susan Whitall's new book (put together with Willie's son Kevin John) "Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and The Birth of Soul" (Titan Books) traces his story, from poverty — growing up in a project at Six and Dequindre dubbed "Cardboard Valley" — to success. He was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 by his fan, Stevie Wonder.

This excerpt describes the experience of seeing Willie John live, at the peak of his fame.

If you were lucky enough to be alive in 1958 and plunked down the two dollars and 50 cents to see Little Willie John and the Upsetters, you were in for several hours of high-voltage entertainment. First the Upsetters came stepping out, dressed in identical glittering jackets. Lee Diamond would sing two numbers to get the audience warmed up. Then, out of nowhere, from the ether, came a voice with an unmistakable, jewel-like tone, its raw power causing the stage curtains to flutter. Before anybody could take a breath, Willie burst through the curtains and onstage, burning on all cylinders from the jump.

He never started with a slow song; his first number would usually be "All Around the World," although later he would start with "Heartbreak." "He came on with a blast, and came off with a blast," guitarist Milton Hopkins recalled. "He did all his ballads and sad stuff in between. He was onstage between 45 minutes and an hour."

In the middle of the show, Willie would pull the immaculately folded handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe away his sweat and tears. He'd cry and moan for the girls, even drop to one knee while singing a lovesick tune. A few songs later, he was rocking, coolly whipping the audience into a frenzy with "Fever." Drummer Charles Connor marveled at how neat Willie was, and utterly silken in his movements. "The way he would move his body, he had a professional 'scene' about him. He had a beautiful smile and he was a neat guy; his clothes were tailor-made. Silk suits and patent leather shoes, and he kept his process up real neat."

Pay for Willie and the Upsetters was kept separate. Universal Attractions set it up that way, to the band's relief, because Willie was known for either spending it all as soon as it was in hands, or sending it home to Detroit. "Willie was a very young man, and he had very young ideas," Hopkins said. "Sometimes in very serious business situations, that's a bad combination." But he was generous with the Upsetters in other ways. If he wasn't setting up a bar in his hotel room, he was shelling out for drinks or dinner for them after the show.

"Here's a guy walking around, 20 (years old) or just out of his teens with two or three thousand dollars in his pocket," Hopkins said. "No guidance, no nothing, just loose. So he blew away a lot of his money, on nothing. … He didn't keep money very long." Hopkins sighs, thinking back on his rambunctious lead singer. "Willie's biggest enemy was youth, that he was young and there was nobody to guide him and keep him going. His dad was his chaperone … because Willie was so young, but he couldn't do a whole lot with him. Willie was a strong little fella. Once he got his nose pointed north, that's the way it was going, don't give a damn what anyone thought!"

Guitarist Hopkins considered it a learning experience to play behind him. "He was a perfect singer. He sang like a horn player would play. I used to like that. The years that we worked with Willie, I learned a whole lot as a guitar player, about phrasing, not leading the singer but following the singer. Hopkins was particularly blown away when Willie mimicked a tenor saxophone solo by Bill Doggett, using only his voice, putting words to Doggett's song "Hold It."

With the Upsetters behind him, Willie couldn't be stopped. Jerry "the Iceman" Butler witnessed the act many times. Butler remembers the legendary showdown between Willie and Jackie Wilson at the Rockland Palace in Harlem. Jerry Butler and the Impressions were on the bill. Butler remembers it as 1959, but it was probably later if Willie did indeed sing "Heartbreak" as the story goes. The old dance hall was teeming with 1,500 eager fans who, for less than two dollars, were going to see the two top dogs of rhythm & blues go toe to toe. Willie and Jackie immediately started squabbling over who was going to go on last.

"Jackie Wilson was getting started as a solo artist," Butler said. "Little Willie John had seniority. But it wasn't even about that, it was about this ego thing between these two guys who were both from Detroit, both tremendous performers."

The opening acts had all performed and left the stage, only Willie and Jackie were still to go on. After some additional haranguing back and forth, the promoter stepped in and insisted that somebody had to go out there and play. The audience was getting drunker and even rowdier than usual. Butler observed Willie change gears. He instantly calmed down and oozed a mischievous confidence. Sure, he'd go onstage before Jackie, he said. "Let Jackie Wilson follow me if he can."

The Upsetters hit the stage and Willie came out on fire, his silvery voice filling up every corner of the old hall with the cry, "Heartbreak, it's hurting me." "These cats had a groove going," Butler marveled, describing the Upsetters. "Their attitude, and Willie's, was, 'I'm going to make that stage so hot that Jackie won't be able to get on.' So that's what he did. He went out there and he heartached them, he sang 'Talk to Me' and fell down to his knees and was looking into ladies' eyes, holding and caressing them, and the big-bosomed ladies ran up there and want to cuddle him, he was so little and cute. Well! The show was over. It was time to go home!"

After Willie walked off, the stage looked as if there'd been a fight in a lingerie store. Stockings, purses and even panties lay in piles, thrown up by women driven out of their minds by the sound of a male voice expressing such romantic fervor. Jackie came out and sang, but it just didn't matter anymore; nobody was really listening. To Butler, Willie was a combination of natural ability and a ferocious work ethic. "Willie was par excellence; he was studied. It wasn't by accident that he did what he did. He practiced and rehearsed it and got it down to a valuable science."

Copyright Susan Whitall and Kevin John. From "Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul" by Susan Whitall (with Kevin John), (Titan Books).

About the book

What: "Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul" (Titan Books, $25.99) by Susan Whitall with Kevin John, is out today.

Radio appearance: Susan Whitall will be interviewed on Ann Delisi's "Essential Music" at noon Saturday on Detroit Public Radio WDET-FM (101.9).

Reading/signing appearances: Susan Whitall will do a reading at 6:45 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday at Temporary Insanity IV, "Two days of art, poetry and performance," located South of Mack Avenue (SOMA) at the Bankle Building, 2944 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

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